Our world is increasingly technologically driven, so it’s critical to equip youth with the knowledge, skills, and passion that results from STEM learning. But STEM curriculum provides more than knowledge, it teaches students critical thinking and problem-solving skills and gives them confidence about their abilities. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt talks to Sheila Porter, the founder of SciFest in Ireland, which hosts 10,000 students each year for its STEM competition. Learn how STEM projects actively engages students in learning, provides essential life skills, and helps solve real-world problems. She also encourages adults and older learners to investigate STEM-based pursuits because it’s never too late to learn about the wonders of our modern world.
Listen to the Episode:
Read the Transcript:
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Welcome to the Exploring STEM podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt. The goal of this podcast is to explore the evolving world of science, technology, engineering, and math. STEM is important because our world depends on it. The economy, our general wellbeing and our future, it’s all defined by a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering, and math. As STEM continues to evolve, this podcast will connect new innovations, insights and provide inspiration by those men and women in our community who are champions of these important issues.
So today I am so excited to introduce to our listeners, Sheila Porter. Sheila is the CEO and founder of SciFest, which was founded in 2006. The STEM-focused program sees over 10,000 students each year from across Ireland to create projects for local, regional, national and international competitions. So Sheila, welcome to the podcast and thank you for joining me.
Sheila Porter: Hi Kandis. Thank you for inviting me.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Oh, the pleasure is all mine. So let’s start the conversation. There are so many conversations happening today that address issues surrounding STEM programs. So can you start by telling us about yourself and why this topic is so dear to your heart?
Sheila Porter: Well, looking back, I think I’ve always enjoyed science. I grew up in Ireland in the ’50s and that was a time when children had to entertain themselves. There were no video games, mobile phones, iPads, you just used your imagination.
We played a lot outdoors and I think this helped us develop important social and negotiation skills. We learned how to share and how to embrace diversity, even though we didn’t realize it. When faced with a problem, we investigated, experimented, improvised and came up with a solution. And looking back, I think this was a great training for a future scientist or an engineer.
We didn’t do science [as a subject] in primary school, at that stage it wasn’t part of the curriculum. My favorite subject would have been arithmetic, which of course is now mathematics. I remember I loved reading and I was fascinated particularly by science fiction books.
For example, I still remember pouring over Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. I also liked nature and travel books, but when I went into secondary school, I think that was my first taste of real science. And I began to think that maybe I would like to [study] science at university and maybe eventually become a science teacher.
I think it was when I did become a science teacher that I began to really see how important STEM skills were and that they weren’t just for producing scientists and engineers, but that they equipped the students with essential life skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving skills. And of course these are invaluable [not only] in the modern workforce, and I think that STEM skills, they also support the students to become active, responsible, and engaged citizens in really what is becoming an increasingly technological society.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Absolutely. I like what you said. We’re trying to raise responsible students. We’re trying to raise active students. We’re trying to raise engaged students. So can you tell us how you created SciFest?
Sheila Porter: Well, early on in my teaching career, I realized that if a student worked on something that they were passionate about, and if they came up with the idea [themselves] that there was no limit to the amount of work that they were willing to do and this made them more knowledgeable about the topic, and then they became more confident.
And other teachers would remark that this wasn’t just in STEM, but it had a positive effect on their other subjects as well. So I would have always as well encouraged my students to enter various STEM competitions. As I said, this provided them with a goal outside the classroom and a challenge.
I could see clearly how this ‘outside the box’ way of teaching benefited the students. So in 2006, I thought, “Well, would it be possible to set up a STEM fair?” I approached a third level lecturer and asked him that if I organized it, would he give me the venue. 170 students turned up at the first fair and it was a resounding success.
I ran a second fair then in 2007, and this resulted then in me being seconded to Intel Ireland by a government agency called Science Foundation Ireland to set SciFest up nationwide. And so in 2008, the program was launched nationwide.
Over the years, it has grown beyond anything that I would have believed when I set it up. We have school fairs, we have 16 regional fairs in universities and institutes of technology and we have a national final with, as you said, around 10,000 students each year. Our winners go on to compete at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair and Broadcom MASTERS International Program in America. And we also sent some students to Hong Kong’s Global Youth Science and Technology Bowl.
It was in 2012 that my husband who also has a science background, joined me to help me run [the program] and we set it up as a limited company with charitable status. We’re very proud that in 2013, the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, became the patron. We feel it’s been a very successful story.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Absolutely. Yeah, I think it’s definitely successful, especially when you have the President of Ireland that’s supporting your efforts. So how does a program like SciFest address the skill gap in STEM?
Sheila Porter: It addresses the skills gap by encouraging young people, no matter their background, ability, or circumstance to get involved in a STEM activity. And this of course then helps them develop essential STEM skills, like problem solving, critical thinking, presentation skills and so on.
And when they participate in something like SciFest, they very often work as a group. So they also learn how to collaborate and how to work with others and also the importance of working as a member of a team. And I think what we don’t often recognize is that young people, are very passionate nowadays about real-world problems like climate change and food shortages. They are very capable and if encouraged, they will approach a problem critically and they’ll use their creativity and technical skills and sometimes they come up with really innovative solutions. And since they choose the topic for the SciFest project themselves, students that are often reluctant learners in the classroom become very involved and take ownership of their learning.
SciFest, offers a safe student-friendly, non-threatening environment for students to present their projects. So they sometimes will meet like-minded students and they get very excited and they become part of a larger community and they make friends for life and visitors will talk to them, real scientists, engineers.
So all of this very positive feedback is it help build our confidence and maybe change our attitude hopefully to STEM. So that they’ll take it on to the next level. Like science fairs have been around a long time, but they are now STEM fairs so they’re not just pure science, they’re science, engineering, technology, math. And we get some fantastic projects from quantum computing to, one I always think of is a student that invented and built a shaving device for people with limited hand dexterity. It’s just fantastic what the students can come up with.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Wow. These sound like some really, really interesting projects. And it’s coming from youth, not necessarily adults or scientists in a research environment. So that is awesome.
Sheila Porter: That’s the exciting thing about it, it’s coming from the student themselves.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I really appreciate that. So as a teacher, can you highlight why it is important to infuse STEM into the school curriculum at an early age?
Sheila Porter: Well, I think it’s never too early to introduce a child to STEM. I think all children from the time they’re born have this natural sense of wonder and curiosity, and they learn through play in the beginning, exploring the world around them. But of course we’re all familiar with that once they’re able to talk, they learn by asking questions.
But I think this, innate inquiry-based approach to viewing the world, it diminishes with age if we don’t foster it and we should encourage it. And research has shown that there’s a positive relationship between the child’s early STEM experiences and future success in school.
So I think a STEM-based education, it teaches children so much more than science, technology, engineering, and math. As I said, it’s a way of thinking that encourages the development of the essential skills and it not only enables the student to perform better in STEM. As I said, it’s been shown to improve the student’s performance in other subjects, such as languages and literacy.
So it’s very important, whether they want to be a scientist, an engineer, a lawyer, an entrepreneur, or whatever, they need to be practicing the skills of critical thinking in order to be able to assess information fairly and accurately. And the earlier we begin, even from, as I said, preschool age, the better.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Here in the United States, we call our school levels primary, secondary levels. Sometimes we will say elementary, middle school and high school. Can you tell us about some of the challenges you’ve encountered when teaching STEM programs to second-level students?
Sheila Porter: I taught general science, senior biology and chemistry to 12 to 18 year olds. I always felt really lucky, teaching a practical subject, such as science. Being able to have an inquiry-based hands-on approach was just so easy to teach that way and engage the students.
But a challenge for me then would have always been switching to the more traditional rote learning because of course students have to do state exams. I always felt that a high quality engagement by students in STEM and the positive learning outcomes were more prevalent in classes where the students were challenged and encouraged to engage in solving real-world problems rather than rote learning.
There are lots of out of school competitions and extracurricular activities, but the challenge as a teacher is they’re not allowed any time for these extracurricular activities, so they have to be done outside normal school hours, and with family commitments, this is often a challenge.
When my children were small, I did take a number of years out. In Ireland as in the rest of the world, an ongoing challenge with STEM is encouraging more students, particularly female, to study the ones that are perceived as more difficult, like say physics and technology.
Gender parity has always been an issue in STEM. And there’s a significant difference all over the world between numbers of male and female STEM graduates and also in the STEM careers. We think that programs like SciFest, because of the safe environment, [encourage the participation of girls.] Of the 10,000 students who participate in SciFest each year, I’m delighted to say that we have around 60% female, and that has been consistent throughout the 15 years that SciFest has been running. So we’re very pleased with that.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: We are speaking to a lot of students at American Public University. Many of them are adult learners. So what message can you give to adult learners who are interested in STEM?
Sheila Porter: Well, I think STEM is essential in our modern society. We live in a digital age where STEM skills are not just essential for career opportunities, but really to understand the world around us. It’s more, I suppose, embedded in our lives than ever before, and really being involved in STEM activity’s and incredible way to have an impact on the world and to be on the frontline of affecting real change.
If you take the great challenges of our time, such as, say the current COVID-19 pandemic and climate change crisis, these are all being solved by teams of STEM innovators from many different STEM fields. Technology has opened doors to great levels of collaboration and has led to unprecedented successes. For example, the speed at which the successful COVID-19 vaccines were produced.
And then as well as that, many of our societies are suffering from a skills gap in many of the STEM fields. And this [is an area] is where there’s a wide array of job opportunities.
My advice would be that it’s never too late to get involved in STEM, whether through making a contribution to research by getting involved, say in citizen science, and there are lots of citizen science programs out there, or by returning to formal education to study STEM. Adults make excellent students. They’re self-motivated and they have a wealth of experience to draw on. So I would advise [adult learners] to go ahead and not be afraid, that there’s a whole world out there waiting to be investigated.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: That is a wonderful message. Thank you for that. How do programs like SciFest relate to the basic academic practices and theories taught in the classroom to the real world?
Sheila Porter: Most of STEM subjects have content related to the real world. There’s some new ones like design and communication graphics, and they have an awful lot of practical content where students can enjoy hands-on involvement in things like product design, using programs like SOLIDWORKS.
But I think there’s often still a gap between what’s taught in the classroom and what’s in the real world. And I think this is where STEM programs like SciFest have a real benefit. When a student takes on a research project for SciFest, they use what they have learned in the classroom and apply it to a real-world problem in which they have a particular interest.
And I think in this way, the relationship between the school curriculum and the outside world comes together. And as I said earlier, they also learn a range of essential skills: critical thinking, problem solving and so on. And these are invaluable to their future life experience, whether they want to work in STEM related industries or simply as informed citizens in a technological society. But I think it bridges the gap.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: It definitely bridges the gap. I think we need to have a continual mindset about the importance of STEM. In an ideal world, how can the public be made more aware of the importance of STEM?
Sheila Porter: I suppose, in a perfect world, every individual would have equal access to a quality STEM education from a preschool age, but unfortunately this is just in a dream world. But there are a number of ways of getting the STEM message out there to the general public.
More traditional ways of course are journalism, television, radio, science centers, museums, libraries, and so on. And even they now will use up-to-date technology to get it out there. But what’s become very popular all over the world, I think are things like science festivals, street buskers and makers fairs.
Fairs like SciFest and the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, these are very important channels [through which to get the STEM message to the general public.] Not only do they encourage young people to get involved, but the stories of [students’] innovations and achievement serve to promote STEM to the general public.
There’s also of course, social media, and that of course grown in popularity to promote just about everything, including STEM. But I think we still need to work hard to reduce the perception of STEM as being white coats and laboratories. And, of course, we also need to address the problem of the gender gap, and encourage more women into STEM. Encouraging diversity in the STEM talent pipeline is critical to fostering innovation and inspiring even more creative solutions to world problems.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I think that’s a wonderful message that STEM is for everyone. And so we want to encourage everybody from different groups and different ages to think about STEM in each aspect of their life. So, Sheila, this was a great discussion. I’m so glad that we had a chance to talk. I have one more question for you, and that is, what is your personal goal or vision when it comes to the future of STEM programs?
Sheila Porter: Well, I suppose my personal goal would be that SciFest will continue to grow and inspire more and more young people to get involved in STEM. I’d love to see all schools offering the program to students. At the moment we have about a third of [second-level schools] in Ireland engaged with SciFest. As I said a moment ago, this would give all students an opportunity to use their knowledge to meet some of the [global] challenges that we’re now facing.
And we need to remember, I think, that the young people of today are the leaders and the innovators of tomorrow. And therefore we have to give them these necessary skills to transform society and develop sustainable solutions to world problems. SciFest, like a number of STEM programs is a registered charity, participation is free to all students and the program is funded by grants and sponsorships. Securing sufficient sponsorship is always an ongoing problem, so I’d really like to see more support from the government and private enterprise in the form of say, budget commitments for programs like SciFest.
And I’d love to also see formal recognition for teachers [who participate in SciFest as] they give so much of their time voluntarily to support their students. I’d like to finish with a quote from a principal in an all-girls school in Dublin and I think this sums up the value of STEM programs like SciFest.
She said that “SciFest has been a hugely enriching and positive experience for the entire school community at St. Mary’s. It provides an excellent opportunity to get the students actively involved in STEM in a fun and engaging way, as well as facilitating students and teachers to work collaboratively and to develop valuable key skills. For an all-girls school, focusing on the promotion of science, the SciFest experience is a critical support. The joy of seeing students showcasing their work and communicating their ideas to others is immensely encouraging and motivational for everyone involved.”
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I think that is a wonderful quote. And like you said, everyone involved benefits from STEM. Sheila, thank you so much for sharing your expertise and your perspective on this issue. And thank you for joining me today for this episode of Exploring STEM.
Sheila Porter: Thank you, Kandis. It was my pleasure.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: This was a wonderful experience. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us. So, as a reminder, you can learn more about these topics for signing up for bi-monthly newsletter. So until our next podcast, be well and be safe.